Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Who came up with, “Yes, We Can?”

I have always wondered if one of the consequences of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is going to be a cheapening of the historic legacy of United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.

One of the lesser things that remain from his movement to fight for better working conditions for migrant farm workers was a catchphrase.

“SI SE PUEDE.” It translates roughly to “Yes, We Can,” or “Yes, You Can,” depending on how one wants to conjugate the verb in their mind.

It was meant to be a reminder to those migrant farm workers, many of whom had their ethnic ties to Mexico or other Latin American countries, that they were people just as much as anyone else. In force, they could work together to accomplish what they wanted.

Now, it is the rally cry of Obama.

We all have heard the chant echoing on those occasions when we watch snippets of an Obama speech on television. For those of you who have attended Obama campaign events, you may very well have joined in the chant, because you didn’t want to feel left out.

IN SHORT, “YES, We Can” is going to be the catchphrase remembered by people years from now when they think back to what they were doing in life when Obama tried to capture the hearts and minds of a nation to get them to elect him president.

In fact, I have no doubt that people will eventually come to think Obama created the phrase. When they are told that Chavez was using it some four decades earlier (around the time that Obama was a child living in Hawaii), they may get resentful that anyone would try to “take credit” for Obama’s thoughts.

It’s just an example of how short-lived many of our memories are. We don’t want to have to think back too far into history.

It is particularly odd that the Obama campaign would use the old United Farm Workers slogan, since one of Chavez’ co-founders of the labor union for farm workers was Dolores Huerta.

NOT ONLY IS she still alive and working and active in political causes, she was actually one of Hillary R. Clinton’s loudest Latina supporters during the Democratic primary season. Her support for Hillary was strong enough that she went to the Democratic convention in Denver, and was the one who officially nominated Clinton for president – before Hillary herself took a pass and officially asked everybody to support the Obama campaign.

The only thing I have ever heard Huerta say about the issue is to remind people that the foundation that tries to keep alive the memory of Chavez’ work actually trade-marked the phrase, which means they have to get a share of any money made from commercial use of the phrase.

I don’t know if that means the Obama campaign is writing out regular checks to somebody, or if some deal has been reached.

But I actually think it would be a positive if people gave a thought to Chavez and his work whenever they started chanting their support for Barack. After all, he is more than just the Arizona-born man who gained national attention when, in 1968, he fasted to draw attention to the decrepit working conditions experienced by people who worked the fields where the nation’s food was grown.

AND IT CERTAINLY would be better than having a certain segment of our older population remember Chavez as the man who inspired them to eat more lettuce and grapes to protest the boycotts that the United Farm Workers used to call for as a protest against those same harsh working conditions.

That actually is the fear of letting “Yes, We Can” become something that exists only for Obama. It trivializes its meaning, while also allowing Chavez’ ideological critics to more harshly establish a legacy for him.

Think I’m kidding?

Earlier this year, conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan was on MSNBC when he started talking about Obama’s campaign slogan and its Spanish translation.

“YES, WE CAN. Si, se puede. That’s Hispanic. That’s the cause of the illegal immigration movement and the amnesty movement,” Buchanan said, while being interviewed by Chris Matthews.

Now such a thought, particularly the ridiculous concept that people speak a language called “Hispanic” instead of Spanish, doesn’t shock me coming from Buchanan. But his attempt to turn a phrase of self-empowerment into a negative one of un-people trying to assert themselves is wrong.

I’m sure it is his way of letting us know Obama as a president would be sympathetic to the concerns of the growing Latino population, which is ironic in that many people in the Latino voter bloc continue to have their doubts about Obama and are only reluctantly voting for him – largely because they don’t like the people that a President John McCain would be indebted to politically.

It also is odd because Chavez himself had his problems with the idea of people from other countries coming to the United States to take jobs, largely because he saw that Anglo employers would be more than willing to use them to exploit the labor situation and get cheaper workers from people forced to live in society’s shadows.

WHAT IS A distortion is when people try to claim Chavez’ view on the issue is evidence of the need to crack down on immigration and impose more restrictive laws. What he primarily fought for was the personal dignity of those migrant workers of Latino ethnic background (perhaps I should stay in character and use the preferred phrase of the 1970s, Chicanos) – many of whom are the same people the conservatives seriously believe ought not to have citizenship in this country.

In short, I don’t have a problem with Obama’s use of the phrase, if it could help spread the meaning of where it originated. There are lessons that could be learned by all of us, regardless of ethnic or economic background.

Then, at the very least, we’d be able to appreciate the humor of Stan Hochman’s column on Tuesday in the Philadelphia Daily News. He recalled that the baseball clubs fielded by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1970s used the phrase “Yes, We Can” to inspire themselves, and that the phrase made it into use in various ads for the team.

He notes one-time second baseman Dave Cash claims never to have gotten a penny for the phrase (which Cash claims to have started), but now jokingly gives Obama “permission” to use the Phillies phrase.

I’D HATE TO think anyone would take this piece seriously, only because that reduces the phrase and its meaning to a line of trivial dreck, no better than the Chicago White Sox of 2005 – which took that old song by the band Journey and made a motivational cry out of “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

I don’t want to see Chavez/Obama reduced to the same level, because I still want to wretch every time I think of the White Sox’ use of the song. It ruined an otherwise perfect World Series.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Is the phrase “Yes, We Can” truly associated with the Philadelphia ( Phillies’ ball clubs of the 1970s?

The phrase turned by Barack Obama into a national slogan is also the name of a San Francisco ( health clinic.

For conservative pundit Pat Buchanan, the Spanish translation “Si Se Puede” is what is wrong ( with this country today. It must be the sight of all those Latinos ( refusing to be stepped all over.

More about the man ( who originally came up with the phrase “Si Se Puede.” For better information, read a book, “Sal Si Puedes,” by Peter Matthiessen (

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